Irish Mythology: Culture or Commodity?

Here’s a very thought-provoking article by Brian O’Sullivan on how elements of Irish culture and mythology have been used—and more often abused—in fantasy fiction. His main point is found, I think, in the these two paragraphs:

The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic [nonsense] and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades.

O’Sullivan is clearly and rightly passionate about this, and he provides much food for thought. I’m grateful for his raising my awareness of how things things are experienced for people who cherish these mythological elements, even if they don’t literally believe in them.

He later mentions the backlash over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology in her “History of Magic in North America.” I’ve shared some of my thinking on that matter elsewhere, and much of what I say there applies here as well. My fiction is set in the United States of America. To write authentically, I feel I have an obligation to deal with the entire melting pot of cultures that I see around me on my way to work every morning. Therefore, this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity.

Of course, it’s up to you, my readers, to decide whether I’ve met that challenge.

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The Ogham Alphabet

oghamSometimes called the “Celtic Tree Alphabet,” Ogham (pronounced, roughly, Oh-um) is made up of straight lines intersecting a staff at various angles. Atlas Obscura has posted an informative article about this unique writing system:

There are about 400 known Ogham stones in the world—360 in Ireland, and the rest scattered between Wales, the Isle of Mann, and Scotland. Most are monuments or border markers, engraved with the evocative names and genealogies of their owners—”Belonging to the Three Sons of the Bald One,” or “He Who Was Born Of The Raven.” More are almost certainly lurking—hidden stones can (and do) pop up occasionally, built into churches, unearthed at construction sites, or hiding out disguised as decorative stonework.

There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail in Children of Pride in which an antagonist writes a line of Ogham script as part of a spell. But there was no way (or reason) to indicate that this was what was happening. I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can track down the scene. 😉

Merrows: Irish Mermaids

Ruthie from the Celtic Myth Podshow introduces us to these underwater faeries.

The word merrow or moruadh comes from the Irish muir (meaning sea) and oigh (meaning maid) and refers specifically to the female of the species. Mermen – the merrows male counterparts – have been rarely seen. They have been described as exceptionally ugly and scaled, with pig-like features and long, pointed teeth. Merrows themselves are extremely beautiful and are promiscuous in their relations with mortals.

The Irish merrow differs physically from humans in that her feet are flatter than those of a mortal and her hands have a thin webbing between the fingers. It should not be assumed that merrows are kindly and well-disposed towards mortals. As members of the sidhe, or Irish fairy world, the inhabitants of Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of Ireland, they are regarded as messengers of doom and death.

Ruthie goes on to equate merrows with selkies, women who take on the form of seals by wearing a magical seal skin. To my mind, these are separate creatures, though it is certainly true that legends tend to be fluid over time and distance. There are certainly points of overlap between them.

The Island of Hy Brasil

The mysterious island sometimes called “the Irish Atlantis” is the subject of a new post at the Celtic Myth Podshow by
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill.

It got its name from the Irish Uí, meaning descendant of Bresal, meaning beauty. Bresal was of the Fir Bolg and it was after one of his daughters, Galvia, that Galway got its name. It was suggested that the country of Brazil was named after the island, but it actually got its name after the red coloured Brazil wood. Other names for the island included Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha(Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue).

There is a description of the island the 9th century biography of Saint Brendan Navigatio Sancti Brendani which was a medieval bestseller. The island was described as being shrouded in mist, visible for one day only every seven years, circular in shape with a river running across its diameter. Though visible it could not always be reached.

Its exact location has never been clarified. In 1325 the Genoese cartographer Dalorto placed it west of Ireland, later it appeared southwest of Galway Bay. Some said it was off the Kerry Coast. On some 15th century maps, islands of the Azores appear as Isola de Brazil, or Insulla de Brazil. A Catalan map from 1480 labels two islands “Illa de brasil”, one to the south west of Ireland one south of “Illa verde” or Greenland.

The Tuatha Dé Danann

Here’s another excellent, concise summary of an aspect of Irish mythology from Ruth at the Celtic Myth Podshow:

The Tuatha de Danann, the people of the Goddess Danu, were one of the great ancient tribes of Ireland. The important manuscript ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’, records that they ruled Ireland from 1897 B.C. to 1700 B.C.

The daoine sídhe or faeries of Ireland are said to be the descendants of this noble lineage.

In the world of Taylor Smart, the sídhe sometimes swear by saying “Danu!” or “By Danu!” I haven’t gone into any detail how contemporary sídhe remember and/or reverence their distinguished ancestors. Perhaps a bit of that will trickle into the third book of the Into the Wonder series, Oak, Ash, and Thorn.

The Irish Sídhe

Newly posted from Ruth at Celtic Myth Podshow:

Numbers of fairy hills and sepulchral carns are scattered over the country, each with a bright palace deep underneath, ruled by its own chief, the tutelary deity. They are still regarded as fairy haunts, and are held in much superstitious awe by the peasantry.

The fairies possessed great preternatural powers. They could make themselves invisible to some persons standing by, while visible to others: as Pallas showed herself to Achilles, while remaining invisible to the other Greeks (Iliad, 1.). But their powers were exercised much oftener for evil than for good. They were consequently dreaded rather than loved; and whatever worship or respect was paid to them was mainly intended to avert mischief. It is in this sense that they are now often called ‘Good people.’

Rethinking Vikings

Listverse has a list of ten discoveries that cast the vikings in a new light. It’s quite interesting and worth a read.

Why mention vikings on Saint Patrick’s Day? Mainly because they were instrumental in the development of the city of Dublin:

The Vikings explored vast amounts of Europe and North America, but they eventually settled into the land that would eventually become Dublin. At the time, its relatively mild climate, thick tree cover, and river made it the perfect location for a winter home. There they repaired their ships and set up a trade network.

The number of Viking relics found in Dublin over the years has been staggering. Temple Lane was created by Viking settlers and has been called the oldest street in Dublin. Viking swords have been found in the area around Christchurch, and the earliest foundations of Dublin Castle are clay floors that were also dated to the Viking era. And just south of the River Liffey is a huge concentration of buildings that seem to indicate the center of the Viking settlement, including houses and buildings once used for metalworking and the production of other commodities like leathers, textiles, and jewelry. Also along the area of the Liffey was evidence of amber-working.